Cliche is natural; originality, not so much. Pre-packaged phrases like “bring to the table,” “at the end of the day,” or “read between the lines” are overused and now lack their meaning, becoming a kind of automatic thinking, according to George Orwell. But why? Because triggering automatic thinking in a listener is helpful to a speaker if he or she wants to be quickly understood. What is the point of explaining yourself in original terms when pre-ordained meanings are sitting right there, ready for use? Frankly, it’s economical.
When we write, however, we have a different job—not just to be comprehended by the reader, but to impact them with our speech. Cliches won’t help us there. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news (that was a cliche), but writers have to be original.
Change the meaning, don’t enhance it
Let’s start small, with adverbs. I follow one rule: your adverb must change the meaning of the verb, not just enhance or emphasize its meaning.
Emphasizing a verb with an adverb weakens the verb. It tells the reader: I don’t believe in this verb. I’m embarrassed of it on its own and I had to dress it up to get it past you.
Go for “he shouted” over “he shouted loudly,” or for “he pleaded” over “he pleaded desperately.” A shout on its own is powerful enough. We’ve all been shouted at, or we’ve shouted ourselves. There’s nothing weak about a shout. So make the reader look at “shout” without its decoration. Likewise, desperation is always in pleading! Look at that beautiful verb, so packed with meaning when you don’t dress it up. Let that meaning cry out.
An enhancing adverb distracts the reader and dilutes the verb’s natural power, like processing fresh cheese into a cheeto.
Make the reader pause and say, “huh!”
Good adverbs alter the meaning of the verb, introducing the reader to new conceptions of something they thought they understood. Take this example: “Killing me softly.” How can one softly kill? The reader pauses, stares out the window, thinks. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now the reader is engaging with the writing. They look back at the page to keep reading.
The same rule holds for adjectives: change, don’t enhance. Bring new meaning to an idea. If not, leave the noun alone—it will speak for itself louder than we can speak for it.
Let’s try describing, say, a beach. An unhelpful adjective might be “the sandy beach.” Duh! Even an eccentric, seemingly unrelated adjective—like “hungry”—would be better. The hungry beach? It may not be suitable for the work at hand, but at least now the reader is thinking. How can beaches be hungry? If beaches get hungry, what do beaches eat?
What did this beach swallow? Did someone vanish?
Ta-da, now we have that lovely thing: narrative.
"Original language blows a cool breeze through the reader"
That’s a quote from Roy Peter Clark, a Florida journalist who taught me to change, not enhance, my adverbs.
With metaphors and similes, as always, we want to be original, bringing the reader new ideas rather than reinforcing ideas they already have. Each time your narrative calls for a metaphor or a simile, pause, he says, and write down some ideas to get to an original comparison.
Solid as a rock. Solid as a house. Solid as a proof. Solid as math.
Solid as a house made me think of how houses stand up, which made me think about engineering and geometric proofs. Do proofs not exemplify solidity? What if we compared something materially solid, like concrete, to something conceptually solid, like math?
I’m not sure if the metaphor would work—it depends on the text, of course. But when I wrote it down, I paused, looked out my window, and began to think about what solidity really was.